Geographic Perspectives on Sustainability and Human-Environment Systems

Solving Collective Action Problems


Fortunately, as we learned at the close of the last section, we are not doomed to suffer the consequences of failing to cooperate on collective action problems. People can and often do act collectively, even if they still hold selfish ethical views.

There are three major types of solutions to collective action problems:

  • Government regulation: A government can declare it against the law to act selfishly and require individuals to cooperate.
  • Private ownership: If someone owns a resource, then he or she can restrict access to it. Furthermore, it will be in his or her interest to prevent the resource from collapsing.
  • Community mobilization: Groups of individuals can informally work together to foster cooperation.

Historically, academic research on collective action problems focused on government regulation and private ownership. Researchers often assumed that without the formalized mechanisms of government and private property, individuals could not come together to cooperate. As we noted in the last section, Garrett Hardin - author of The Tragedy of the Commons - was advocating for privatization (he was also, incidentally, a neomalthusian.) However, over recent years, research has shown that community mobilization can be successful – and often is. Furthermore, we now know that in many cases government regulation and private ownership fail to solve collective action problems. Much of what we know about community mobilization comes from the research of Elinor Ostrom. Ostrom was a political scientist who spent most of her career at Indiana University and Arizona State University before she passed away in 2012. For her work, Ostrom was a co-recipient of the 2009 Nobel Prize in economics – the first woman ever to receive this award.

Reading Assignment: "Commons Sense"

Please read the article "Commons Sense" from The Economist, available online.

As you read this, think about what factors make some types of solutions to collective actions succeed and others fail. How might you use these insights to help solve collective action problems in your own life?

The viability of community mobilization is especially important because it is often the only option available. Governments have busy agendas and cannot consider all collective action problems. Some resources cannot be owned privately. But we can often connect with each other informally (i.e. outside of government channels) and work together to foster collective action.

Social Norms

One important component of community mobilization is the establishment of social norms.

Social norms are views or practices that a group of individuals considers to be normal. They are “unwritten rules” that a group of people, a community, or society adhere to. Social norms define our default behaviors. Tipping your server in a restaurant in the U.S. is a good example of a social norm. You are not required to leave a tip by law, and it is generally not included in the bill, but it is so expected that servers are often paid very low hourly wages based on the assumption that they will earn tips. And failing to tip - even if you are from another country where tipping is not the norm - can be taken as an offense.

Consider This: Cycling as a Social Norm in Copenhagen

Copenhagen has a strong tradition for people to cycle. The Danish capital is world famous for its cycling culture, but the bike culture of Copenhagen was threatened in the 1960s with the advent of car culture. People in Copenhagen have spent several decades seeking ways to “take the city back” and reestablishing the bike as a most popular means of transport.

Please watch the following 5-minute video.

Copenhagen's Climate-Friendly, Bike-Friendly Streets

The video conveys one important message that Copenhagen's cycling haven was not designed and constructed overnight. Through many years of community mobilization efforts, the city now boasts some of the most extensive infrastructures for cyclists and most bicycle-friendly practices thanks to the consistency in prioritizing cyclists on the street.

In addition, cycling is considered as a basic skill in Copenhagen. Most children are taught to ride a bike at home and they can cycle by the time they start school. All this helps make cycling an ingrained part of Copenhagen’s culture and (re)establishes cycling as a social norm in Copenhagen. Given how strong this social norm is, it is easy to forget that this wasn’t always the case and that quite a lot of citizen effort was required to make Copenhagen what it is today.

The fact that the citizens of Copenhagen achieved so much is encouraging to citizens of other cities who are interested in achieving similar results. While the car has become the dominant mode of transport in today’s society, one of the keys to the establishment of a new social norm is the integration of public and stakeholder engagement in creating an enabling environment for normalizing cycling as part the culture of the city.

This simple procedure can be very effective in small communities, such as the homes we live in. But what about our home planet? Do the procedures work at larger scales? Big global environmental issues like climate change (module 9) and biodiversity loss (module 10) present very challenging collective action problems due to their massive scale. These issues involve billions of people across the entire planet. We simply cannot establish one single social norm for so many people! However, we can still use social norms to promote cooperative action, even if the social norms affect only a small portion of the relevant individuals.